SPEED AND EFFICIENCY: A high-speed train during testing operations on October 8 along a new line in southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (XINHUA)
What excites me most about China is transportation.
Take for instance high-speed trains. Every six months or so, the country's high-speed network expands, engulfing more cities and towns in its wake. Residents in some small cities who were once only connected to the outside through bus or slower-class trains are more in touch with the arrival of high speed, not to mention having reaped the economic benefits that come with fast trains. With an already heavy presence along the country's more developed eastern seaboard, the high-speed rail network is now stretching westward toward more remote and less populous regions.
China's high-speed trains mean business too. Running at up to 192 miles per hour (310 km per hour), high-speed rail whisks passengers to destinations in record times, sparking an imagination for travel like never before.
Tourism is no doubt a huge beneficiary of high-speed travel. Travelers can reach Shijiazhuang, capital of north China's Hebei Province, in a mere 90 minutes from Beijing and visit the historic town of Zhengding and the stone village of Yujiacun in the outskirts of that city in a day or two. Zhengzhou, capital of central China's Henan Province, and its historic surroundings like Luoyang and Kaifeng, are now only three hours away.
Airlines are increasingly becoming nervous and are furiously cutting prices or folding short-haul routes altogether. Delays in and out of Beijing and Shanghai are so frequent-according to one United States-based company that tracks these things-that Chinese are turning to high-speed rail for destinations within a four-hour ride away. High-speed trains are virtually never delayed and depart on the minute like clockwork.
Tickets, once readily available for purchase, are becoming more difficult to obtain as per-capita incomes rise and travel by train becomes the more viable option.
Want a glimpse of modern China? Head to Beijing South Station and expect to see a glitzy, sleek, modern affair that was warmly welcomed as an alternative to the city's more worn down, dirty and smaller train stations when it was complete in 2008. When it comes to high-speed trains, China is no doubt a global leader. In operation since late last year is the world's longest high-speed rail line at 1,428 miles, connecting Beijing to Guangzhou, capital of south Guangdong Province. What's more, China is home to the world's first and only high-speed track that operates under sub-zero temperatures. That line runs from Dalian to the winter city of Harbin in the northeast. Expansion plans for the network are simple: Four lines running east-west, four lines running north-south. Every year a piece or two of the puzzle fills in as the network races toward completion. Witnessing expansion of the high-speed network is a trill to watch, if only for the possibilities it brings.
But the development of China's high-speed network is matched by the rapid expansion of subway lines across the country. Beijing is already home to 456 km of subway track, carrying roughly 9 million passengers daily. Officials boast of plans to increase that to 1,000 km by 2020. That's a whole lot of track and a whole lot of subway, but an absolute necessity for the city's growing population.
Despite train cars that are uncomfortably over-crowded, the subway in the Chinese capital has proven to be an efficient mode of transport. The golden rule for travel in Beijing is simple: Take the subway if you're pressed for time, or risk being stuck in traffic over ground. Beijing's notorious gridlock is no secret.
Fear being late for an appointment? Take the subway.
The years leading up to and including 2020 will see the completion of the country's high-speed rail network (according to current plans) and countless subway lines across the country. The expansion of trains and subways in China isn't only vital to the nation's ongoing economic growth, it's simply breathtaking to see unfold.
China's decade of transportation has arrived.
The author is a Canadian working in China